There was just one observation deck from which Pollux was visible after the convoy breached the outer corridor of space. Though starless shadow enshrouded half the planet, what remained bore the spidery storm systems customary so late in the rainy season. Distance softened Pollux, muddling the acid monsoons which bloomed along its curvature into formless and clotted afterbirth, while the light refracted around the epicenters of weather surges cast shimmery, wriggling dendrites in flashing neon hues. Outside orbit, the silhouettes of a hundred Galra warships appeared, backlit, in fitful intervals.
Keith’s reflection flickered in the thick glass. Inclining his chin just so, his face filled the dark swell of Pollux’s western hemisphere. The fit was slanted, imperfect. His nose didn’t quite align down the middle, and the wild ends of his bangs were ill-matched where they faded into the shifting, constant ache of clouds. He ticked an ear forward to adjust the fall of a curl by his eye, noting the dampened vibrance of his sclera over the backdrop of space, how in it the yellow was made grey.
Behind Keith, the door to the observation deck slid open, allowing cool, cycled air to flood in from the outside hall. Goosebumps budded down the sides of his neck and spread like a rash to his nape, beginning where the downy fur at the base of his ears tapered into sensitive flesh. A pocket of sweat made itself known at the small of his back as it chilled.
“Savoring the view?” rumbled a low voice.
In answer, Keith parted his lips and hissed out an exhale. The resulting condensation which blotted the glass lingered for one tick, maybe three, and with its retreat the striking shade of purple which had long marked him as other faded from his skin. His ears came next; they flicked tamely down against his head as they shrunk, fur receding down their elongating points. Then, lids heavy, Keith’s eyes tracked hungrily around his reflection one final time, committing the dark halo of his hair to memory before it, too, burned away to incandescent white.
“This is only temporary,” Keith said at length. His tone was removed, but his words were a placation all the same. He turned his head to distract from the fine tremble upsetting the line of his throat. Although this illusion had been Keith’s idea to begin with, shifting his Galran features into those expected of an Altean wasn’t something he had ever maintained for an extended period of time. What bitter irony it was for him to have wanted, all his childhood on Pollux, to look like everyone else around him, only for him now to feel ill at ease with the lie—to himself, and soon to the people of Altea.
The observation deck was comfortably dim, though a pronounced violet glow rose hazily upward from under the window, its source the accent lights that ornamented the cruiser’s hull. That glow caught within the folds of Zarkon’s cloak as he came to stand beside Keith.
“You and I differ in what we qualify as temporary,” Zarkon remarked, acerbic.
“Altea isn’t Pollux.” The response was rote now; quiet, and stripped bare of the stubborn adamance with which Keith had once stood before Zarkon, only a handful of decaphoebs ago, and made his first petition for peace. For too long, Keith had entreated his uncle to loosen the stranglehold that Daibazaal’s military kept on the quadrant, the same stranglehold with which Zarkon smothered Keith under pretense of protecting him. It was truly remarkable how far they had come, however much Zarkon, not one to lick his wounds and move on, needled Keith in the name of his soured pride.
Galra were proud by nature. Though Keith had not made a practice of shapeshifting into Altean form, this was nothing that Zarkon hadn’t seen—and disapproved of—before. To the Galra, such trickery was a slight and weakness both, for there was no clearer rejection of that half of his heritage than concealing the traits that made him undeniably Galra—as if the genetic dominance of one species could translate to superiority over another.
“My people, Pollux…,” Keith said, the determination in his voice unsteadied by its fervor. He swallowed to quell its shake. “They’ve known me all my life. Altea might accept a long-lost Altean prince. They won’t accept a Galran one instead. I want this to work out. I want there to finally be peace.”
He could not say what caused his eyes to prickle and warm with the promise of burgeoning tears. He had stared at Pollux for such a time that the planet was now very, very small. Like a lone candle caught in a gale, the savage nature of Pollux’s atmosphere caused light and color to pop and flit upon its surface until distance stretched, and the star-addled darkness outside the observation window had swallowed the planet whole. An unnamable emotion, weepy and feral, nested high in Keith’s throat. He thought it, perhaps, regret.
“Everything I have done since Avok fell was to ensure you would be safe. I do want what you want, little müirl.” The endearment rasped over Zarkon’s tongue, his attempt, if any, at Altean pronunciation marred by his rougher and indelicate cadence. “But if this… ordeal,” Zarkon enunciated, ever so slow, “proves even more bothersome than I anticipate, I will not entertain it a second longer.”
Moments of Zarkon’s compassion and leniency were few and far between. Though Keith had attended his uncle’s court on Daibazaal on just a handful of occasions—and those only after Keith began his fifteenth year—he knew firsthand the sort of leader that Zarkon was to the Galra. Bullheaded but charismatic, Zarkon was prouder than any ten of his highest-ranking generals combined and upheld even the strictest beliefs of an archaic culture that had gone unchanged for tens of thousands of years. Zarkon did not soften himself, neither in public nor in private company; in that vein he was uniquely frank, if frustrating to be tied to. They were family, but that did not allot Keith special treatment. The things that Zarkon wanted for him, the things that he wanted for himself—those would never be the same. And Zarkon was not known to yield.
Until, that was, today.
What had changed? Keith had been arguing with Zarkon on the matter of ending this foolish war for decaphoebs. His age of majority had come and gone at least six cycles ago. But surely the answer was not so simple a thing.
Within a breath of those last words hitting the air, a foreign, featherlight pressure smoothed over Keith’s crown and sifted through the unruly ends of his hair. The touch was hurried, and yet, he thought with wonder, desperate to linger. Galra were a species driven by social contact; a means of silent communication that was instinctual amongst kin. Keith had only ever known Zarkon to be his, and he despised the hurt of being left behind while Zarkon ruled on Daibazaal. Knowing this, the small comfort Zarkon attempted to offer now was awkward and out-of-practice. His fanged mandible dragged over Keith’s head in the way a new queen would calm a damp, blind kit fresh from the belly. I’m here, it communicated, an intrinsic fact made known in the tiny frisson of heat that slid down to Keith’s nape, and which would have made his Galra ears fold flat against his skull if he still had them.
At Keith’s opposite side, where Zarkon surely would not see beneath the long shadows of the deck, a dusting of lavender crept up his fingers, unraveling his Altean form along each knuckle and tendon just far enough to expose his claws. Once returned to him, he sunk them into the meat of his palm with a single-minded need to draw blood.
“You should rest,” Zarkon murmured as he drew back, and there it was—that imperious finality. Diplomatic, yet predictably overbearing. “Come tomorrow, Altea will bring what it wills.” And if I was right, he did not have to verbalize, for the ultimatum hung in the air nevertheless, that will be the end of it.
When Keith made no further bid to contradict him, Zarkon took his silence as the dismissal it was and departed. The door sealed in Zarkon’s wake, and Keith was alone again.
His palm stung. A hot, pulsing pain sunk into the muscles there and surged up his wrist, mutating quickly into an itch so coercive that the slippery thwap of Keith’s wet claws dislodging went unnoticed, muddled beneath the intense impulse to scratch and dig—to maul open the flesh along his arm if it meant silencing his overstimulated nerves. A feeling like ocean tide pulsed outward then receded behind his sternum, full and sick with rotting sargassum.
Echo to echo. The phrase was sacred tradition amongst Polluxians, one passed down over millennia. Their elders called it echo-touching, the innate ability that every child born on Pollux possessed. That is, the ability to focus the essence of one’s soul into tendrils of light, and with that light, touch the souls of others. It was the simplest way to convey complex thought and emotion between two people, and there were many, both young and old, who chose to forgo speech altogether and communicate no other way.
There was, of course, no precedent for how that ability would manifest in half-breeds. In truth, Keith’s physical appearance was not the only factor that had set him apart throughout his childhood on Pollux. No matter how hard or how long he’d tried, no matter how many healers sought to guide him, to teach him... Keith could feel the presence of his echo like a tangible rocking wave behind his ribs, and yet, he was powerless to set it free.
In the wake of Zarkon’s departure, his echo was a squirming, discontent thing. Instances such as these were more common than not, leaving Keith aching and miserable, uncertain where his Galran instincts ended and his Altean ones began. And not for the first time, Keith wondered what was wrong with him.
He was Altean, but there was so much about Alteans he had no basis to even begin to understand. Altea’s division into two entities and the founding of King Avok’s colony on Pollux were several thousand years past. Somewhere in the mix, Pollux’s alliance with Daibazaal had snapped the last threads which held the planets together, and the original history and traditions of his displaced people were lost, piecemeal, over generations.
Perhaps, when he spoke with Alfor, he might ask what it meant. If the king knew how to access his echo, Keith would finally be able to reach out and connect.
Eventually, Keith’s body quieted. Numbness spilled over his collarbones and pooled thick with static at his navel. His fingers reached for the back of his head, unthinking, to probe. The act of preening one’s kit was not lost on him. It was just as familiar to Keith as any other Galra, and nearly too raw for him to acknowledge.
He needed there to finally be peace between Altea and Pollux not just for his own future and that of his people, but because if Keith was right about this—
He would be finishing everything his mother had fought and died for.